Parshat Mishpatim is chock — full of laws. It opens with a discussion of the regulations governing the taking of a Hebrew or Jewish slave. The Torah clearly delineates the limits of how long such a slave can be indentured and how and when he must be released. Generations later, the prophet Jeremiah condemned his compatriots for violating these regulations by holding their slaves in perpetuity, as if they were chattel. He condemned his compatriots for violating the God-given covenant which required them to free their slaves as required by the Torah. After the people finally acquiesced to his plaint and freed their slaves, they did so only to reverse their action, recapturing and enslaving them once again. Jeremiah, responding to this sinful behavior, proclaims God’s response to this transgression: “You would not obey Me and proclaim a release, each to his kinsman and countryman. Lo! I proclaim your release, declares the Lord, to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine, and I will make you a horror to all the nations of the earth.” (34:17) In other words, Jeremiah links the sinful behavior of his countrymen to the downfall of the nation at the hands of the Babylonians.
The Talmud Yerushalmi relates an interesting interpretation of a verse from the story of the exodus from Egypt where God charged Moses and Aaron to confront both the children of Israel and Pharaoh: “’So the Lord spoke to both Moses and Aaron in regard to the Israelites and Pharaoh, instructing them to deliver the Israelites from the land of Egypt’ (Exodus 6:13) – with regard to what did God charge them (the children of Israel)? – [He charged them] regarding the freeing of slaves. This is brought according to what was said by Rabbi Illa: Israel was punished [in Egypt] on account of not freeing slaves, as it is written: ‘At the end of seven years every one of you must let go any fellow Hebrew who was sold to you.’ (Jeremiah 34:7)” (Yerushalmi Rosh Hashanah 3:5 58d)
Rabbi Illa, in this ahistorical midrash, applies the verse from Jeremiah found in this week’s haftarah, to the children of Israel in Egypt. He claims that there were Jewish slave owners in Egypt who, like the Egyptians, refused to abide by the limits set on slave ownership found in the Torah. He asserts that it was this sin which accounted for Israel’s bondage in Egypt. The Yerushalmi’s projection of the sin of the generation of Jeremiah onto the generation of the Exodus was intended to impress upon its audience in rabbinic times an abhorrence of slavery that would forever be a part of the collective memory of the Jewish people. It was also meant to remind us that sins against others ultimately come back to haunt us.